Throughout the course of a person’s life, he will encounter times when the decision to sacrifice something of value for the acquisition of greater prosperity becomes essential. In order to gain wealth within the world of commerce, a beginning businessperson may need to have the willingness to sell his house and relocate to an unfamiliar area in pursuit of affluence. The sacrifices made for attaining achievement, however, are not limited to items of monetary worth. Marriage is a prime example of this occurrence. In marriage, a man and a woman must both sacrifice comfortable aspects of their family life, friendships, and traditions to build a bond that will contribute to future success in areas such as emotional wellbeing and belonging. Similarly, the works of Langston Hughes and Charles W. Chesnutt demonstrate that the strivings of mulattoes to gain a sense of equality in white society bring sacrifices of identity that result in a superior mindset and the oppression of racially pure Negroes.
Before delving into specific works, it is important to establish an understanding of motivating factors behind a mulatto’s desires for belonging that lead to the oppression of his own race. In the simplest sense, a mulatto is the offspring of one white parent and one black parent. The ramifications of being the descendant of parents from different races do not stop at the skin, but rather, they permeate the essence of a mulatto’s being. Recognizing the mulatto as a “…cultural hybrid, as a stranded personality living in the margin of fixed status” (Bullock 78) is integral to comprehending the rationale behind the actions of mulattoes in literature. During slavery, abolitionists questioned how white plantation owners could enslave their mulatto sons-men who were intellectually and physically equal. Subsequent to emancipation and reconstruction, white writers began criticizing mulatto integration upon seeing integration as potentially harmful to social stability. Mulattoes then faced the problematic decision between actively attempting to pass for white at the expense of their Negro race and accepting the black within them at the risk of demeaning discrimination.
In Langston Hughes’s play Mulatto,Bert-the mulatto son of a plantation owner- comes to the realization that he must reconcile the races within him at an early age. During a discussion between Bert’s mother Cora and his older brother William, tremendous insights into the motivation behind what will become Bert’s life-long attempts for racial reconciliation surface. Early in his life, Bert was the favorite son of his father Colonel Norwood. When Bert was seven, however, the reality that his father did not accept him struck along with Norwood’s fist. While white guests were at the Norwood plantation, Bert ran to tell the Colonel that dinner was ready by addressing him as papa. Cora recounts, “(He) Ain’t never called him papa before, and I don’t know where he got it from. And Colonel Tom knocked him right backwards under de horses feet” (Hughes 13). The emotional pain that Norwood inflicts upon Bert intensifies as Bert recognizes that the half-black blood he possesses may continually hinder him from gaining full acceptance into white society.
Throughout the years that follow Bert’s recognition that he may never secure a place in white society, his selfish strivings to gain acceptance as fully white come at the cost of sacrificing the Negro race within and around him. First, it is important to note that the five years of education Bert receives awaken his sense of superiority over Negroes. Wanting more than just an education, Bert feels that the white blood coursing within his veins entitles him to equal treatment within white society. Fred Higgins, a close friend of Colonel Norwood and a politician steeped in southern tradition, presents his concerns about Bert’s behavior in town. According to Fred, Bert demanded a refund in the post office after receiving damaged goods-an action that Negroes were not entitled to take. Not only does Bert believe that his white blood gives him the right to argue about a money order, he also feels that it entitles him to the family name. While standing in front of Higgins’ store, Bert suppresses his black ancestry by claiming Norwood as his last name instead of using Lewis like his Negro family. The concept of a mulatto receiving equal treatment in white society is worthy, but Bert fails to realize the necessity of equal treatment for all blacks. Taking notice of Bert’s actions, Cora reprimands him by pleading, “they (Colonel Norwood and his slave driver Talbot) ain’t gonna stand fo’ yo’ sass. Not only you, but I ‘spects we’s all gwine to pay fo’ it, every colored soul on this place” (17). Bert is unconcerned with the brutality that may face Negro plantation workers and refuses to work the fields. To Bert, working the fields would not simply enslave him to Mr. Norwood, but it would enslave him to identification with the Negro race that he desperately wants to suppress.
Unable to cope with Norwood’s demands to identify himself by the black within him, Bert engages in a treacherous tirade that brings the death of two men and one dream. As Norwood struggles to suppress Bert’s desire to take a place in white society instead the cotton fields, Bert reacts in the traditional pattern of enslaved mulatto males. In her article entitled “The Mulatto in American Fiction,” Penelope Bullock proposes the reasons and possible repercussions of this pattern:
The indomitable spirit of his father rises up within him and he rebels. If he is successful in escaping to freedom, he becomes a happy, prosperous, and reputable citizen in his community. But even if his revolt against slavery fails, he meets his tragic death nobly and defiantly (79).
Norwood attempts the keep Bert from exiting the front door, which is for whites only, while holding a pistol. As his father’s spirit is stirring within him, Bert clamps down on Norwood’s arm until he is unable to hold the pistol and clamps down on his neck until he is unable to breathe. Bert’s dream of entering white society dies. In his paper “Intracaste Prejudice in Langston Hughes’s Mulatto,” Germain Bienvenu notices, “Bert, in killing his white father, obviously feels that he has killed his own whiteness… For the first time, Bert refers to his father (the white man) and himself as racial opposites” (352). In a moment of ironic insight, Bert sublimely states, “They’ll (the white men seeking vengeance for Norwood’s death) want me now” (Hughes 25). Understanding that the white mob will lynch him like a regular Negro, Bert lies in Cora’s bed and uses the last bullet from Norwood’s gun to end his dismal search for identity.
Unlike Bert, Mr. Ryder in Charles W. Chesnutt’s “The Wife of His Youth” has success as a mulatto entering white society and understands the conflict that exists between racial equality and superiority. Not only has Mr. Ryder become a prominent citizen in the northern city of Groveland during his lifetime, but also many of his fellow mulattoes in the “Blue Vein Society” have found success. Although character and culture are the supposed cornerstones of the Blue Vein Society, it is rare for a black to gain acceptance without having a light enough complexion for blue veins to show through his skin. Blue Vein members knew the route to success. As June Socken observes, “The mulattoes lauded whiteness and deplored blackness because they lived in a white society that did so. They believed, based upon experience, that the only way to advance was to become whiter” (52). Ironically, the only way for Blue Vein advancement was to utilize the same prejudice based on skin color that whites employed to hinder Negroes. Mr. Ryder brings this troubling dilemma of occupying liminal space to consciousness:
I have no race prejudice, but we people of mixed blood are ground between the upper and the nether millstone. Our fate lies between absorption by the white race and extinction in the black. The one doesn’t want us yet, but may take us in time. The other would welcome us but it would be for us a backward step…Self-preservation is the law of nature (Chesnutt 791).For Mr. Ryder, shedding the crushing weight of mulatto existence and absorbing further into white society entails proposing to Mrs. Dixon-a mulatto with lighter skin and higher education-at a ball thrown in her honor. While Mr. Ryder is preparing his proposal speech, the knocking of Liza Jane, an elderly black woman, interrupts plans for progression.
As Liza’s story surfaces, her words begin to knock down Mr. Ryder’s strongly constructed convictions about integration into white society and reveal his tragic transformation. From the initial description of Liza Jane as “…so black that her toothless gums… were not red, but blue”(792) and the use of dialect in her speech, “he (Chesnutt) takes great pains to emphasize the extent to which Liza Jane embodies what Mr. Ryder has spent most of his adult life trying to avoid” (Duncan 290). When Liza recounts a sobering story of separation from her husband Sam Taylor, a freeborn mulatto facing enslavement, Mr. Ryder must decide whether to accept the story as his own or to neglect the past in pursuit of current ambitions. Mr. Ryder attempts to avoid the past by dissuading Liza with thoughts of Sam’s potential death, remarriage, or physical transformation. Liza’s intuition does not allow her to accept such possibilities. During Liza’s twenty-five years of searching, however, the object of her search has indeed changed from her beloved Sam Taylor to the unrecognizable Mr. Ryder. A picture of Sam that Liza uses for guidance is now useless, for “it was faded with time, but the features were still distinct, and it was easy to see what manner of man it had represented” (Chesnutt 794). Starting as inward alterations of character, the sacrifices of black heritage for his entrance into white society progress outward and even modify Mr. Ryder’s physical features.
When backed by Blue Veins who are facing similar dilemmas, Mr. Ryder is able to overcome his oppressive pursuits for white absorption and accept the black heritage that he had once represented. Knowing that an acceptance of Liza entails white society rejecting him as equal, Mr. Ryder needs reassurance that he will maintain a position in Blue Vein Society. At the ball for Mrs. Dixon, Mr. Ryder’s cathartic retelling of Liza’s story evokes emotions:
For the story had awakened a responsive thrill in many hearts. There were some present who had seen, and others who had heard their fathers and grandfathers tell, the wrongs and suffering so this past generation, and all of them still felt, in their darker moments, the shadow hanging over them (795).Mr. Ryder moves on to present a hypothetical scenario of his own actions before asking how he (the man in the scenario) should react to Liza. Mrs. Dixon-the very person Ryder wishes to marry as a means of progressing his societal position-replies, “He should acknowledge her” (796). With the encouragement of Mrs. Dixon and other Blue Veins acting as an impetus, Mr. Ryder presents Liza as the wife of his youth. After dealing with his past, Mr. Ryder is able to reverse his inward alterations of character and view what once appeared to be a step backward as a step toward reconciling the races within him.
Demonstrated aggressively in Bert and civilly in Mr. Ryder, the mulatto striving to gain equality in society is a source for mentalities that assert white superiority and damage Negroes. Even after endless attempts to gain the rewards associated with acceptance into white society, mulattoes face difficulty in reconciling the repercussions of having mixed blood flowing within their veins. Whether a person is racially mixed or racially pure, events that are not completely within the scope of personal control will arise. Dealing with these crises properly is imperative. If a person is unable to resolve troubles that arise during life in a positive manner, the past can overwhelm and destroy him as in Bert’s case. Contrary to the destructive nature of unresolved problems, problems that a person is able to resolve positively, such as Mr. Ryder does, are able to alter mindsets and provide success for the advancement of many.
Bienvenu, Germain J. “Intracaste Prejudice in Langston Hughes’s Mulatto.” African American Review 26 (1992) 341-353.
Bullock, Penelope. “The Mulatto in American Fiction” Phylon 6 (1945) 78-82.
Chesnutt, Charles W. ” The Wife of His Youth.” The Norton Anthology of American Literature Sixth Edition. Ed. Nina Baym. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2003, 789-797.
Duncan, Charles. “Telling Genealogy: Notions of the Family in The Wife of His Youth.” Critical Essays on Charles W. Chesnutt. Ed. Joseph R. McElrath Jr. New York: C.K. Hall and Co., 1999, 281-90.
Hughes, Langston. Mulatto. Five Plays by Langston Hughes. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1963.
Socken, June. “Charles Waddell Chesnutt and the Solution to the Race Problem.” Negro American Literature Forum 3 (1969): 52-56.